- Imperial Russia’s Civil Society, 1750–1917
The two works under review—a compilation describing self-organization of society in imperial Russia from the 18th century through the beginning of the 20th century, which Anastasiia Tumanova has edited and to which she contributes four chapters, and Tumanova’s monograph on Russian society during World War I—determine the strength and liveliness of civil society in imperial Russia. These works leave no doubt that the still influential view of pre-Soviet Russia as an agrarian backwater, whose populace was devoid of initiative and cowed by a capricious, authoritarian government, and the correlative theory that political repression precipitated the revolutions of 1917 must both be relegated to the dustbin. The publications under review document that the Russian government was paternalistic, intrusive, and often moved at a glacial pace. Still, sometimes the government moved with lightning speed, implementing the Great Reforms in the 1860s and 1870s and establishing the State Duma, the reformed State Council, and a modicum of civil rights in 1905–6. Moreover, and this is important, the imperial Russian government did allow Russian citizens space in which to manage their own affairs.
Tumanova’s two works, under review here, emphasize that Russian citizens had plenty of capacity for self-organization. The 1991 American compilation [End Page 193] Between Tsar and People: Educated Society and the Quest for Public Identity in Late Imperial Russiaprovided introductory information on diverse voluntary and civic groups. 1 Tumanova’s edited volume and her monograph are more detailed and, additionally, focus on the laws and legal aspects of establishing civic societies and maintaining them in imperial Russia.
The compilation is an encyclopedic tome, synthesizing secondary sources and newly available archival evidence. Its 14 packed chapters analyze a myriad of voluntary societies and contain more than 20 pages listing voluntary societies. V. Ia. Grosul’s chapter 1, Tumanova’s chapter 2, and I. S. Rozental´’s chapter 6 recount that educated wealthy nobles, following familiarity with organizations in Western Europe, began to organize themselves into clubs in the 18th and early 19th centuries. These chapters and Tumanova’s chapters 3 and 4 (proffering precise statistics), as well as her chapter 7, co-authored with Rozental´, affirm that even though in Russia, as in Germany and Austria, societies had to be approved by the government, from the mid-19th-century clubs and societies of all kinds—philanthropic, literary and artistic, educational, leisure, nature, sports-related, devoted to gambling and to politics—proliferated astronomically among merchants and broad swaths of the rest of the population, including religious organizations and members of the imperial family. Tumanova’s forte is legal analysis, and she reviews in detail how legislation affected the organization of societies and clubs (193–216). In particular, she emphasizes that the Temporary Regulation on Societies, issued by the tsar in March 1906, speeded up this process (209–16).
The volume also vividly illustrates peasant involvement in voluntary societies. The Russian Empire was predominantly agrarian, and more than 80 percent of the population was listed under the rubric of “peasant.” However, the peasantry was very diverse and not inert. Although, until 1861, half the peasants were serfs, nonpersons who had no right to own property or sue in a court of law, peasants did so anyway. As early as the 1960s, Jerome Blum detailed that both serfs and so-called state peasants established businesses—some small but others large—which indicated initiative and gave considerable autonomy. 2 Ben Eklof documented that some peasant communes hired teachers in the 19th century. 3 Charles A. Ruud illustrated peasant social [End Page 194]mobility in his biography of Ivan Sytin, illiterate peasant turned publishing magnate. 4...